The European Tour continues to seek out the sun so it’s back to the Middle East for another two-week stretch.
It starts with this week’s Oman Open before heading to a new course in Qatar.
Al Mouj in Muscat is the host venue for just the third edition of this event although the par 72 was used on the Challenge Tour from 2013-2017 so there’s more course form to go at than on first glance.
Thomas Pieters and Martin Kaymer add some Ryder Cup flavor but, to be honest, it’s a weak field with most of the elite Europeans now heading to the Florida Swing as the build-up to the 2020 Masters continues.
Top Finishers at Al Mouj on the Challenge Tour
Leading finishers and stats in 2018 Oman Open
-16 Joost Luiten (DD: 30, DA: 8, GIR: 30, Scr: 40, PA: 1, AA: 10)
-14 Chris Wood (DD: 45, DA: 45, GIR: 40, Scr: 6, PA: 3, AA: 15)
-13 - Julien Guerrier (DD: 9, DA: 42, GIR: 14, Scr: 10, PA: 16, AA: 7)
-11 Jorge Campillo (DD: 12, DA: 13, GIR: 14, Scr: 44, PA: 3, AA: 4)
-11 Alexander Levy (DD: 2, DA: 33, GIR: 2, Scr: 20, PA: 32, AA: 6)
-11 Seungsu Han (DD: 31, DA: 3, GIR: 40, Scr: 6, PA: 14, AA: 8)
Leading finishers and stats in 2019 Oman Open
-7 Kurt Kitayama (DD: 1, DA: 62, GIR: 16, Scr: 15, PA: 4, AA: 4)
-6 Jorge Campillo (DD: 5, DA: 25, GIR: 2, Scr: 7, PA: 2, AA: 1)
-6 Maximillian Kieffer (DD: 24, DA: 3, GIR: 5, Scr: 3, PA: 36, AA: 3)
-6 Clement Sordet (DD: 6, DA: 2, GIR: 3, Scr: 12, PA: 25, AA: 2)
-6 Fabrizio Zanotti (DD: 2, DA: 33, GIR: 2, Scr: 20, PA: 32, AA: 6)
Notes: Putting Average has been important both years but in tougher conditions 12 months ago, the importance of hitting greens was magnified, with the four runners-up all finishing in the top five for GIR.
Thursday looks the toughest day with winds picking up to 15mph in the afternoon. They drop (9mph) on the weekend and the temperatures also rise as the week goes on, maxing out at 86 degrees on Sunday afternoon.
Kitayama started his third round with a quadruple bogey-8 last year but still came through to win. The wind was extreme that week, hence the winning score ballooning to nine shots higher than in 2018. The Greg Norman design lies on the edge of the Indian Ocean in Muscat, overlooking the Gulf of Oman. Visually, some holes can resemble a links layout but the grass here is Paspalum SeaDwarf, one that grabs, so around the well-manicured greens it plays differently. As well as last year’s testing conditions, four of the five Challenge Tour events held at Al Mouj were captured with 15-under or higher so it’s no pushover.
Joost Luiten “It’s one of those golf courses where you’ve got to drive the ball well. If you start to miss fairways you’re going to struggle because there’s a lot of undulation and some sandy patches. It can be punishing so you’ve got to focus on the fairways and greens, once you’re on the greens you can make some birdies and that plays to my strengths. Normally I am pretty straight off the tee and I hit a lot of greens so hopefully I can get the putter hot - that was certainly the formula that worked for me in 2018.”
Chris Wood “I’m really surprised by the course here, it’s probably one of the best desert courses you’ll see – although you say desert course but it’s on the sea. It’s a bit of a mix between a links and a desert course. The design is really good and there are so many players saying the same things. It’s in perfect condition, the practice facilities are awesome too so I’m really pleasantly surprised.”
Jens Dantorp "It's a ball-strikers course. You need to be strong off the tee and you need to place smart shots into the greens. You have to be strategic here, you can't just bomb it down the fairways. There are bunkers making landing areas narrow and rough where you almost can't find the ball. I see myself as a ball-striker and a thinker on the course; it fits my game pretty well."
During the windy 2019 edition
Gaganjeet Bhullar: "These conditions are, by far, the toughest I’ve ever played in.”
Brandon Stone: “It’s very challenging out there, the wind is absolutely brutal. To sign for a 70 today is something to be proud of. It’s so tricky out there with the conditions. They made the correct decision yesterday to suspend - the greens were too quick and the ball was just blowing off. The course is in incredible condition, it just shows how brutal this wind is.”
The Leading Contenders
It’s a swift return to the Middle East for the Belgian who was a fast-finishing third (R4 65) in the Saudi International at the start of February. Pieters was sixth here (68-75-69-71) on his course debut last year, ranking 7th for Putting Average and 16th for GIR. Also T6 in the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai at the end of November, he looks a deserved favorite.
The German has definitely found some consistency again, cashing in his last seven events either side of the Christmas break and, most impressively, finishing T21 or better in six of them. He kept that streak going with T13 at the Saudi International, shooting a Friday 64 and a Sunday 65. It’s his tournament debut.
Took the title here in 2018 and made a solid defense in 2019 when tied for 12th despite losing his way with a second-round 77. He hit just under 75% of greens both years but the big difference was the putter (1st for PA and Putts Per Round in 2018 but 60th and 37th in those same two categories last time). The Dutchman is 3-for-3 this season but has yet to find a spark (42-66-44).
A first start for the young Aussie since his excellent breakthrough first European Tour victory in the Vic Open last time (1st Driving Accuracy, 2nd Scrambling, 5th Putting Average, 10th Driving Accuracy, 15th GIR). That added to T15 in January’s South African Open and a top three in December’s Aussie PGA so his form his strong. MC on first look at Al Mouj last year.
The Belgian recovered from a sluggish start (73) in Saudi to come through and take T6 and that represented a fifth top ten in his last ten worldwide starts, a run that started with T8 at October’s Open de France. Different parts of his game have peaked (he was 1st for Putting Average in South Africa, 1st for GIR in Dubai and 1st for Scrambling in Saudi) so he looks close to that first, breakout win. His course form isn’t of the same level though (40-31-41).
It’s a current v course form conundrum with the Malaysian. He’s gone 15-21-27-3 (the latter in Saudi last time) in four European Tour starts this season but his round scores at Al Mouj read 72-71-79-76-75-77. Surely that will change if he keeps hitting it like he did in Saudi (9th DD, 4th DA, 1st GIR) so it may pay to give him the benefit of the doubt on the course form front.
The Spanish talent has played all four rounds in his last nine starts and had top fours in two of those (T4 at his home Open de Espana in October and T3 in January’s Dubai Desert Classic). Also T27 in Saudi after opening with 65, he’s been striking his irons well and, if he keeps it straight off the tee, his distance is a big asset. Overcame a Friday 78 to battle away and finish T45 on his Oman Open debut last year.
Made the long trip to Australia only to miss the cut in the Vic Open but prior to that he was T21 in the Saudi International (6th GIR). MC by a long way in Dubai and T41 in Abu Dhabi after a bright start (fourth at halfway), he's been a little patchy but the Chinese golfer is perfectly capable of making a good impression on his tournament debut.
The Englishman ended 2019 by connecting seven top 25s and kept the streak going with T12 in Abu Dhabi. But then, from nowhere, missed cuts in Dubai and Saudi. A few weeks off should help although he’s not had his best here in Oman with T44 on debut and MC last year. In 2018 he opened with 65 but shot an 81 in round three.
If it’s reliability you want, Smith has shown it for a long time now, cashing in his last 11 starts. The caveat is that only one of those has been a top 20 (fifth at September’s Alfred Dunhill Links Championship) so he’s struggled to land the big paydays. So far in 2020 he was T21 in Abu Dhabi, T32 Dubai and T56 Saudi but, in the latter, middle rounds of 67-67 put him T10 after 54 holes before he leaked oil everywhere with a closing 77. Course form certainly adds to his appeal as he’s posted T26 (2018) and T12 (2019) in this event and T17 when Al Mouj staged the 2016 Challenge Tour Grand Final.